By Alex Kimani
Not too long ago, wind, solar, and energy storage technologies were largely dismissed as being fringe, pie-in-the-sky, and not cost-competitive. Today, clean energy is not only being recognized because of environmental concerns, but also as a major economic driver.
Alternative energy plays have been basking in the limelight following President Biden’s latest aggressive ramp-up of his climate agenda, including plans to replace the federal government’s auto fleet with electric vehicles as well as an indefinite ban on new oil and gas leasing on federal territory.
The rapid rise of renewables reflects a confluence of many factors, but also acts as a reminder that what appears fringe today might quickly become mainstream tomorrow.
Here are a few such futuristic technologies that appear to be skating to where the puck is going.
#1 The Human Battery
Over the past five years or so, the tech hot word has been “wearables,” basically meaning any gadget we could wear from smartwatches, spectacles, and smart bands to clothing, shoes, and more. But the sad fact is that wearables have remained on the fringes of smart consumer technology, with promising companies like FitBit Inc. (NYSE:FIT) now struggling to find a buyer. An often-cited reason why wearables such as Apple Watch, Google Glass and Samsung Galaxy S3 Frontier have failed to really take off, apart from looking too nerdy, is low battery life. The vast majority of wearables are too power-hungry and need constant charging to keep up.
But with any luck, your next smartwatch or fitness tracker might be able to run much longer between charges, thanks to a technology that will turn you into a biological battery.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed a new, low-cost wearable device that employs thermoelectric generators to convert the wearer’s internal heat into electricity.
The inventor, Jianliang Xiao, associate professor at the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering at CU Boulder, says his device beats other similar thermoelectric wearable devices because it’s stretchy, can heal itself when damaged, and is fully recyclable –meaning it’s a cleaner alternative to traditional electronics. The device will be able to generate about 1 volt of energy for every square centimeter of skin area –not much but still enough to power electronics like smartwatches or fitness trackers.
The device begins with a base made out of a stretchy material called polyimine, into which the scientist sticks a series of thin thermoelectric chips, connecting them all with liquid metal wires. The final product is a stretchable device that looks like a cross between a plastic bracelet and a miniature CPU that captures the excess heat that you radiate during your workouts rather than letting it go to waste.
#2 Artificial Blowholes
In this new age of renewable energy, tidal and wave energy have largely failed to live up to their enormous potential despite being a more reliable energy source than either solar and wind power. But a Blue Energy revolution especially is now looking to change that with the EU targeting 1-3 GW for ocean energy by 2030 and 60 GW by 2050.
Luckily, the pace of innovation has been accelerating to make blue energy an everyday reality.
Australia-based Wave Swell Energy has been exploring technology that will generate renewable power by harvesting wave energy pushed through an oscillating water column (OWC), also known as “artificial blowholes”.
In such a device, the movement of air created during normal wave oscillations spins a turbine that produces electricity. OWC really is a form of an artificial blowhole whereby an underwater chamber opens to the waves with an air cavern above the water in the chamber. The WSE OWC is unique in that it functions unidirectionally rather than bidirectionally like all previous OWCs by incorporating simple flap valves into the OWC. The WSE setup is currently able to generate up to 200 kilowatts of power with plans for larger 1,000kW models.
Waves are naturally more consistent and predictable than other renewable sources of energy, allowing them to more easily complement existing fossil fuel baseload during the transition to a fully renewable grid.
#3 Fusion Energy
Long relegated to the trash heap of utopic clean energy technologies in the realm of harvesting energy from blackholes, nuclear fusion is suddenly making a big comeback–and for good reason.
Fusion is not only ultra-powerful but is also the cleanest and virtually limitless energy source known to man. In fact, nuclear fusion is pretty much our perfect energy source that is not only likely to play an outsized role in the shift from ‘dirty’ fossil fuels to clean energy but also power the conquest of our Final Frontier: Space.
After 35 years of painstaking preparation and countless delays, scientists have finally broken ground by kicking off the five-year assembly phase of the massive (ITER), the world’s largest fusion reactor, in Saint-Paul-les-Durance, France.
Funded by six nations, including the US, Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea, ITER will be the world’s largest tokamak fusion device with an estimated cost of ~$24 billion and capable of generating about 500 MW of thermal fusion energy as early as 2025.
But fusion projects are no longer confined to intergovernmental efforts.
Last year, Bloomberg reported that Commonwealth Fusion Systems has raised $84 million from Singapore’s Temasek Holding, Norway’s Equinor and other investors in its latest round. Founded by MIT researchers in 2018, Commonwealth Fusion Systems has now raised more than $200 million and has been designing and building nuclear fusion power plants for customers.
More than $1.2 billion has poured into private fusion startups such as Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Canada’s General Fusion Inc., U.S.’ TAE Technologies Inc. and U.K.’s Tokamak Energy Ltd.